Voice Continues to be a Game Changer

June 19, 2018
CTO Phil Wiser shares how KUBRA and other Hearst companies are using voice technology to shape the marketplace.
I have been fascinated with voice interfaces for quite some time. Dating back to early days of head modeling vocoders and other Bell Lab attempts at a reliable voice based exchange with computers. That has changed dramatically in the past several years as voice interfaces moved beyond cute novelties like the first iteration of Siri to reliable UX for a increasingly wide rage of applications. The article below give some insight into what we are doing at Hearst to raise awareness and get voice UX into the product design thinking and development of our consumer and business information companies.

Hearst Explores the Sound of Voice

Voice assistants are quickly moving from novelty tech items to valuable, data-driven companions — creating a unique moment for businesses to get closer to their customers than ever before.

“Alexa, what’s new with Voice at Hearst?”

Smart speakers are fun to have around. You can tell them what songs to play, ask for weather updates around the world or even track real-time performance stats from your favorite video game. Accessing information without lifting a finger is increasingly becoming a reality, due to the progress in voice technology and artificial intelligence — a reality that Hearst is accelerating at the speed of sound.

“We realized that as access to information evolves, it’s imperative that we not only follow these emerging trends, but actually meet consumers and businesses where they are,” explained Hearst Chief Technology Officer Phil Wiser. “Voice-activated devices — including Amazon Echo, Google Home and now smartphone experiences — open up an entirely new way for users to access content.”

And it’s not just speculation: One in every five U.S. adults has access to smart speakers today, according to Voicebot.Ai’s 2018 report. By 2020, researchers predict that over 175 million smart speakers will be installed in U.S. homes. What is perhaps even more compelling is that nearly two-thirds of those consumers report using their smart speaker on a daily basis.

Observing these trends in the marketplace, Hearst identified a need to perpetuate the research and development of these game-changing platforms — generating interest and momentum among their businesses to drive early adoption. To support these efforts, the Emerging Technology group was formed under the leadership of Hearst Executive Director Chris Papaleo.

The Emerging Technology group identifies and develops capabilities involved in important technology trends, like voice interfaces and artificial intelligence. The primary focus is identifying technology and products that can be tested and deployed across Hearst today, with market opportunities that could scale quickly in the next couple of years.

“For so long, Hearst has excelled at presenting stories in a visual format, whether that is in text, image or video,” Papaleo said. “But telling stories with sound only — without any of those visual components — that’s a really significant shift.”

Voice has already and continues to be actively pursued across Hearst’s businesses. Content teams — including Hearst Magazines, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, Hearst Television, Hearst Newspapers and Complex Media — have already experimented with new voice products, leveraging original audio content as well as extending the reach and lifecycle of existing content. Last year, Hearst Magazines created MyBeautyChat — its first voice-only brand — bringing together beauty editors from across multiple titles to create content for an informational and entertaining beauty experience on Amazon’s Alexa platform.

What’s increasingly exciting is the potential power that voice technology represents to the broader Hearst portfolio, beyond content distribution and amplification. Businesses within Hearst Transportation and Hearst Health are actively developing projects around voice, seeing the potential value in a hands-free experience for their customers. Similarly, customer experience management solutions provider KUBRA is already exploring the ways that voice will impact how customers can complete a range of tasks — from paying a bill, to reporting a power outage, to understanding how to reduce their energy usage.

The rapid prototyping and iteration being used in these voice experiments is consistent with the startup approach underlying Hearst’s technology efforts. “We have found success helping Hearst businesses execute against new technology trends with these small, quick developments,” Wiser said. “We are working in close partnership with the voice platforms themselves to maximize learnings and better support Hearst businesses. We see this voice explosion as an early example of how the broader category of artificial intelligence is quickly changing our world.”

The Emerging Technology team — composed of engineers, designers, product managers and data experts — has quickly evolved into a symbiotic resource for many groups across Hearst. Acting as an accelerator of innovation and business through knowledge sharing, the team is a resource to empower the greater technology community at Hearst in building voice products and developing frameworks that meet their own unique business needs.

“A successful project for us is one in which our team learns a new technical skill and our internal business partners learn something new about storytelling, marketing or monetization on emerging platforms,” Papaleo said. “The idea is that Hearst business leaders will be better informed when navigating in what is mostly unknown territory.”

Since the group formed in early 2017, the Emerging Technology team has worked on voice projects with various Hearst brands, including:

• Good Housekeeping’s Amazon Alexa Skill for stain removal and recipes

• ELLE’s daily horoscopes for Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant

• O, The Oprah Magazine’s everyday inspiration for Amazon Alexa

• MyBeautyChat, a voice-first beauty brand for Amazon Alexa

This initial set of voice experiments are only the beginning, as Hearst looks forward to the next phase of evolving consumer interfaces — such as augmented reality, voice products with complementary visual components and even voice products in the enterprise world.

“The post-smartphone future will be heads-up and hands-free,” Wiser said. “There’s no set playbook for reaching consumers on emerging platforms, but the goal is for our work be a foundation for developing new tools and insights. We’re learning more every day and doing our best to share that knowledge.”

To galvanize knowledge sharing, Wiser and Papaleo’s team are excited to launch a new platform called Tech Talks — a series of events, thought-leadership, videos and more — all designed to help the greater Hearst community spark conversation and progress around emerging areas of technology. Tech Talks will be releasing more information about 101 Learning events, monthly meetup’s, video interviews and more.

“If any of it sounds remotely interesting to you, go, watch, learn, build,” Wiser said. “Every mind makes a difference.”